Last week I had to undergo the ordeal of having yet another follow-up bone scan and chest/pelvic CT scan. I have been cancer free and healthy since April 20th, 2010, but since my oncologist took me off all the drugs—the Herceptin and the Tykerb—four months ago, he has ordered a series of scans every two months to see if my immune system can keep me healthy on its own. I have only one more series of scans to go through two months from now and then he said we could start talking about a “cure.”
The tremendous good news is that, like last time, my latest scans are completely normal. It is such a relief I hardly have words for it. Every day I focus so much of my will on staying healthy, it has become one of my spiritual practices. In a small corner of my mind I secretly feel that I should somehow be so completely surrendered that it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other, that I should live in such utter faith in the goodness of the Universe that any outcome should be acceptable. But I just can’t get to that place and, honestly, I’m not wasting any more time feeling like I should. I’ll leave that to the Dalai Lama.
Fear No Longer Has Power Over Me
The first time I had cancer, about nine years ago, during the months following my treatments, I lived in a state of ecstasy, of grace. One of my strongest feelings was intense gratitude that I had survived such a harrowing journey and beat all the odds. I felt that I had been more than recompensed for my pain, that my life was immeasurably richer than it had been before, and that I could never have become the person I then was without having gone through a time of such suffering, such sorrow such courage, such faith, and such hope.
The second time I passed through cancer was a different journey, one where I lived daily with such fear and such dread that one afternoon my legs gave out beneath me and I simply fell to the ground in my hallway and couldn’t get up for several minutes. But I conquered that fear.
I have been completely free of cancer for nearly two years now, and I have never loved my life more. I have never before comprehended what it means to love and to be loved more than I do right now. Yet I do not have a vocabulary to describe that dark night of the soul, nor do I rejoice that I had to pass through that terrible place yet again.
One Moment of Perfect Beauty
About three weeks ago, however, I did have a moment when I could say and truly mean it that I was grateful for having been struck with cancer a second time, after being free of it for seven years. I was standing in my dressing room looking at an old Audubon calendar that has a picture of a butterfly for every day of the month. At the end of February 2011 is a picture of a Blue Morpho caterpillar seconds after it has hatched. The first thing caterpillars do is to turn and eat their eggs—Nature wastes nothing.
As I was looking at this creature, large on the calendar but only ¼ of an inch long in reality, I was struck by the utter extravagance of its beauty. It has a large round maroon head surrounded by black bristles like a lion’s mane and a white and red striped body with delicate hairs along each side. I thought to myself, “There is no need for such amazing beauty in this tiny worm. It could function perfectly well without it, and perhaps even be better camouflaged if it were simply green or brown. Yet Nature squanders beauty recklessly on billions of creatures.”
In that moment I realized that over the last two years I have slowly come to live in a state of perception where the entire world resonates with loveliness, where daily I am overwhelmed with the shape of clouds arching over the freeway, the red iridescence on the neck of a hummingbird drinking at my feeder, or an enormous sycamore leaf lying on the ground, or really, it’s so crazy, almost everything around me. I am intoxicated with the beauty of the world.
Realizing that as I looked at the tiny caterpiller, I wept and said to the Universe, “Thank you for gifting me with cancer a second time,” because I knew that without that experience I would not be able to look through the veil and truly see the indescribable radiance of creation.
The Treasure of the Heart
I do live with joy. I’m probably one of the happiest people I know, ridiculously glad for the simplest of things and feeling like I will never take anything for granted again. Yet I also live with a daily determination to stay healthy. I constantly visualize well-being and balance in my body. I just couldn’t face it if I became ill again, so my mantra has become “Let me be healthy. I am healthy and filled with energy.” And I do feel healthy and strong.
Like the heroine in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, I have passed through a terrible darkness to a place of tremendous light. I have overcome a sickening, debilitating fear that filled my mind, and replaced it with an incandescent aliveness. I have brought back a great gift, and even though I wish I could live with absolute certainty, as the Buddhists tell us, “The only thing certain in life is uncertainty.” In spite of that, here I sit with my treasure, my pearl of great price. I have paid for it dearly, but it can never be taken from me, because once the eyes of the soul are open, they can never be closed.